AD gifted. One of my favourite things to do during the run up to Christmas is visit the Christmas markets in Manchester. Along with copious amounts of mulled wine, I always seek out the stall which sells speculaas biscuits. They’re full of festive spice and they’re just delicious.
Speculaas is a type of spiced biscuit traditionally baked on or just before St Nicholas’ Day and around Christmas in many European countries. Speculaas are thin, crunchy, slightly browned biscuits which usually have an image or figure stamped on the front side before baking. The most common design I’ve seen is the windmill, which is why I often call them windmill biscuits.
Vandotsch recently sent me a packet of Speculaas Baking Mix to bake with. The packet contained almost everything you needed to bake a batch of speculaas, just add butter! The instructions were really easy to follow, and they took just minutes to mix together. It’s important to have faith that the mix will turn into a decent dough once you start working with it. Do not be tempted to add water or milk or anything, this will just make the dough too sticky.
The Vandotsch Baking Mix contains all the lovely festive spices speculaas are known for. Packed with cinnamon, cloves and ginger, the biscuits are a real Christmas treat. I don’t have a windmill shaped cutter, so I used my Christmas tree cutter, which worked pretty well. I had some dough left over, so I rolled this up into balls, squashed them with the palm of my hand and made a few seriously delicious cookie sized biscuits, because they were thicker they were somehow even better.
The Baking Mix is suitable for vegetarians and vegans (if made with a non dairy substitute). It is also free from artificial flavourings, colours or preservatives. They are gluten free too.
The pre-made Baking Mix costs £5.59 and there are options to buy the mix with a traditional style cutter too. These would make a lovely gift for a keen baker like myself. Vandotsch have all kinds of speculaas spice and baking mixes on their website, so it’s worth having a look to see if anything tickles your fancy.
AD/Gifted. Growing up in the 80’s we always had a plastic tree. Every December it was dug out of the loft and decorated with a ramshackle selection of gaudy decorations and things we’d made at school. It was a tree heaving with sentimentality and we loved it.
When I eventually moved out of home, it was time for me to create some traditions of my own. Top of my list was to ditch the chintzy plastic tree and start buying a real Christmas tree every year; something we have stuck to. There’s something really nice about a real Christmas tree; from the gentle pine scent which fills the room, to the lovely prickly joy of decorating it. The real Christmas tree might have been something beloved of the Victorians; but it also looks very lovely in my 1940’s semi in South Manchester.
This year, like last year (and channeling Margo Leadbetter) I had my real Christmas tree delivered to me from The Christmas Forest. Based in London, they deliver top quality Christmas trees all over the UK. This saves me the faff of buying a tree locally and struggling to get it home, as a non-driver this is a real issue for me.
I ordered my 6ft real Christmas tree a few weeks ago and booked it to arrive on Friday; which it did do, bright and early; the driver even brought it in for me. Over the weekend we put it up, filled the base with water, dug our decorations out of the loft and set to work decorating it; something the boy is especially excited about doing these days.
As when I was a child, the tree isn’t covered in stylish and carefully co-ordinated trinkets; but mostly a selection of things we’ve made, or shiny things we have bought to remember the places we have been. I’ve picked out some of our favourite decorations from our tree, things that we’ve made and things that we love.
There are button decorations, hand painted baubles, a Tunnocks teacake bauble I made a few years ago, angels my son decorated at school, lolly stick decorations and easy paper baubles. I hope these will be on our tree every year and more will join them. I’ve always been a sucker for sentimentality, and our tree reflects who we are; homely, warm, with more of a taste of tradition than what’s hot and what’s not each Christmas.
If like me, you want to take some of the stress out of Christmas; getting a real Christmas Tree delivered is a real time saver and a godsend. It’s been such a help to have it delivered and it’s one very big thing off my festive to do list.
For more information about The Christmas Forest, or to order your Christmas Tree from them, visit Christmas Forest.
Disclaimer: We were sent our Christmas Tree for review purposes. All images and opinions are our own.
One of the most enduring and classic flavours of Christmas is mincemeat. Mince pies are an undeniable Christmas classic, but I’ve been throwing mincemeat into cakes and vol au vents for a few years now. It’s too good an ingredient just to use in little pies. This week I baked a hearty batch of mincemeat flapjack and they all but disappeared in an afternoon. They’re simple, they’re filling and most of all, they’re delicious.
I confess, this idea is not my own. We went for a family walk at Tatton Park in Cheshire, whilst warming up with a cup of tea, we all had a piece of cake. I chose the mincemeat flapjack and was inspired enough to try to recreate it when I got home. If anything I think my version is slightly better, with more mincemeat and a less soggy, slightly firmer texture.
You could try adapting your own favourite flapjack recipe by adding some mincemeat, or you could try my recipe below. It’s delicious, a real crowd-pleaser and would be a lovely addition to a lunch box in the run up to Christmas! This recipe makes about 12 squares of flapjack.
175g of light brown sugar
150g butter or margarine
3 tablespoons of golden syrup
1 teaspoon of bicarbonate of soda
200g of porridge oats
200g plain flour
How to make your mincemeat flapjack:
Pre-heat your oven to 180° and line a high sided baking tin with baking parchment. I use a roasting tin, because that’s all I have.
In a pan melt your butter, sugar, golden syrup and bicarbonate of soda. Make sure you stir occasionally until it’s all melted together. Once it’s all melted, add your mincemeat and stir through.
Put your flour and oats in a large bowl and pour over the contents of the pan, mix and mix until everything is well combined. Pour into your lined baking dish and put it in the oven for 20-30 minutes until it’s firm and golden.
Remove from the oven and leave to cool for as long as you can stand it. Slice the flapjack into squares and enjoy with a nice cup of tea.
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We were invited to visit The Lanterns at Chester Zoo and were given complimentary tickets.
Last year we visited The Lanterns at Chester Zoo and we were utterly enchanted. We returned again over the weekend in the hopes that an evening surrounded by lights and magic would get us all ready to start celebrating the festive season, and that it did. It’s a really different way to see the zoo, with all the animals tucked up for the night, you get to explore a luminous magic world created for you by Wild Rumpus.
When we arrived it was raining a little; but we’d wrapped up warm against the cold and being from Manchester, a little bit of rain wasn’t going to dampen our spirits. Visitors are let through every 15 minutes, but we’d timed it perfectly, so we just walked through as a slot opened up.
We grabbed steaming cups of hot chocolate from the cafe and began exploring. We were met by a troop of illuminated zebras, who high fived us and posed for selfies, this set the tone for the evening very nicely.
The Lanterns follows a set route through Chester Zoo. It’s all lit up, so it’s impossible to get lost; and early on you get given a lantern to carry around. The smallish boy got a small metal bucket with an LED tealight in it and we got a large pyramid lantern on a stick.
There are a number of different themed areas; from the Basecamp you move to the Moonlit Meadow, to Underwater, Cloud Cuckoo Land to Tropical Dreams. Then on through the Enchanted Woodland and Northern Lights; then to the Night Sky Adventure and to Shangri La and then home in time for tea.
We made our way the the Moonlit Meadow; a wonderful snow covered spot filled with illuminated animals, from giant giraffes, graceful cheetahs, to a family of funny little penguins. All of the Chester Zoo favourites were represented there. We moved past the meadow and quickly encountered my favourite creature of all, a sea of brightly coloured jellyfish, wafting about in the breeze. We stood and watched them for a little while before moving off.
The boy loved the Tropical Dreams area best, with its brightly coloured frogs and waterfall, that was until he found the snow machine! He stayed and played under the snow machine for a good long time. He danced under the swirling foamy snowflakes, scooped up the foamy snow into balls and threw them at us, he was transfixed and it was wonderful to see.
There were a number of Christmas market style sheds in one area, all selling very temping smelling food and drink. We’d worked up an appetite, walking around the zoo, for hog roast and mulled wine were the order of the day; and very delicious they all were too.
We loved exploring The Lanterns, around every corner there was a new delight. We each had our favourites and the car journey home (and the next day or so) were filled with chatter about all the things we’d seen. The Lanterns is fast becoming a family tradition. It’s a great way for us to get in the mood for Christmas.
The Lanterns are running until December 23rd at Chester Zoo. Tickets start from £5.50 per child and £10.50 per adult.
It’s the week before Christmas and I’ve got a million things to do. One of them is to plan some things for me and the boy to do on Friday. We have a whole day to ourselves before the madness begins, and he’s already requested crafts and baking. Those I can do. I’ve been wanting to try to make some paper baubles for a few weeks, I finally had the chance this morning.
These paper baubles are so simple to do, but they look pretty smart and I’m sure they cutting and sticking will appeal to my son. Paper bauble making will definitely be on our agenda for Friday.
How to make Pretty Paper Baubles
You will need:
Coloured or patterned paper
A glue stick
A length of ribbon
How to make Pretty Paper Baubles:
You’ll need coloured paper, I used plain red paper and a patterned red paper which I thought would work well together. On your coloured paper, draw around the rim of the glass to make a circle. You’ll need at least 8 circles to make your bauble.
Cut your circles out and fold them in half. If you’re using patterned paper, the pattern needs to be in the inside of the fold.
Using the glue stick, glue the folded halves together; if you’re using plain and patterned paper, alternate them. Make sure your circles are well stuck together, you might want to press them under a heavy book for half an hour to make sure they’re firmly glued together. I found it best to make two halves of the bauble before putting the ribbon on.
To fix the ribbon in place, give the inside half of one side of your bauble a really good rub with the glue stick. Lay your ribbon in place and having given the other half of the bauble a good rub with the glue stick, press the two sides together. Your bauble is complete and ready for hanging up on the tree.
In a couple of weeks time families will be sitting down to enjoy Christmas dinner together. Christmas dinner is a real culinary highlight, it’s essentially the best roast dinner ever. Every family has their own favourites, some have beef or goose, most have turkey; I like Yorkshire puddings and several different types of stuffing. But one thing everyone has in common is Christmas dinner cooking nerves.
I take it in turns to host Christmas Day with my brother, this year is his turn, last year it was mine. I’ve been cooking Christmas dinner by myself since I was about 16. The two things that make it tricky are juggling everything for oven and hob space and getting everything cooked and ready at the same time.
Each year there are typically around 8 people sat around our table for Christmas dinner. Out of this number, two are vegetarians and one of those has a number of intolerances to take into account. The meat eaters are very traditional, but whatever number of chipolatas your family eats, we have to double it. There’s a lot to juggle.
That’s just for the main course. We usually have a starter of soup and bread rolls and pudding is a selection of options (because each one of us is fussy) including Christmas pudding, mince pies, chocolate pudding, ice cream, and a selection of boozy creams and sauces. We also offer a cheese board and mints. It’s a huge meal!
Last Christmas I sat down and thought about it. I didn’t want to spend my Christmas Day stuck in the kitchen peeling sprouts and being a skivvy for everyone. I wanted to enjoy Christmas morning with my family and not have too much stress. With a bit of forward planning and prep the day before I managed to pull off my most relaxed Christmas in years.
Here’s what I did. I looked at what food I would be serving and planned what I could cook the day before and what would be better cooked on the day. Most of the food could be cooked ahead of time and warmed through before serving, even the roast potatoes. So this is what I did.
This had to be cooked on the day, but that’s fine. Getting ahead of myself meant there was plenty of oven space for it. We also got a turkey crown from the butchers which cut down the cooking time by quite some margin.
Last year I served a nut roast, because I love nut roast. I found a nice ready made one and cooked that on Christmas Day.
Yorkshires really need to be made just before serving, there are no cheats here. Also, there’s no shame in buying the ready-made ones. Yorkshires can be tricky and who needs the added pressure on Christmas Day?
I’ve been cooking my roast potatoes on Christmas Eve for years. Everyone has their own way of doing them, I like fluffy potatoes cooked in groundnut oil, but cook them however you prefer. Take them out of the oven when they’re starting to colour, remove them from the roasting tin and put them on a cooling rack with some kitchen towel underneath. Leave them to cool, once they’re cool, put them as they are on a plain baking tray with no extra oil. They’ll take an extra 20-30 minutes to warm through and crisp up on Christmas Day, but they’re really crisp, fluffy inside and because they’ve not sat in oil for too long they’re not as oily as they could be.
Roast parsnips or sweet potatoes
Just like the roast potatoes, you can pre-cook your parsnips or sweet potatoes ahead of time. They come out just as good as freshly cooked ones, just do what I did with the roast potatoes.
If you’ve not put these on to boil at the end of summer, you might as well cancel Christmas. Not really, but it’s the old joke. Sprouts aren’t great re-heated, so I leave them to cook on the hob on Christmas Day. It’s worth allowing a bit of extra time for them to cook because somehow vegetables always take much longer to cook when you’ve got guests waiting.
Carrots really lend themselves to re-heating. I did almost all of my veg prep on the morning of Christmas Eve, all the peeling and chopping and par boiling and roasting. I boiled up my carrots with a bay leaf and once they were almost cooked through, I drained them, put them in a microwavable dish with a knob of butter and covered them with cling-film. Just before serving, I gave them a 5 minute blast in the microwave, a stir to coat everything in the little knob of butter and we had perfect carrots.
I generally cook my red cabbage in the slow cooker, but I follow this recipe. Instead of cooking it on the hob I use the slow cooker, yes it takes a few hours more, but it frees some precious kitchen space and it’s the kind of thing which can happily sit and more or less look after itself. Last year I made this on Christmas Eve, then turned my slow cooker on low on Christmas morning, by the time Christmas dinner was being served it was heated through and delicious.
I love a good stuffing and as a vegetarian they are a good filling addition to my plate. I have traditionally used packet bought stuffings and pimped them up by stirring a spoon or two of cranberry sauce though before baking, but last year I made two different stuffings from scratch. Yes, it did take a bit more time, but they were so much tastier and the texture was lighter and less gluey. I’d urge you to find some time to make your own if you can. It was remarkably simple, especially if you’ve got a food processor to do the chopping for you. I made my stuffings on Christmas Eve and they just needed baking in the oven on the day. I’m converted to homemade stuffing now.
Meat & Veggie Gravy
I am a big old cheat when it comes to gravy. Sometimes I make my own, but even with my plan-ahead precision, Christmas Day is too hectic for me to be faffing about too much. You can either make your gravy ahead of time and freeze it, or go to your local shop and buy a tub of fresh ready-made gravy and heat it up on the day.
Bread sauce is one of my favourite things about Christmas Dinner. Weirdly only my husband and me really like it, so it’s not something I devote too much time to. I’m happy to cheat, cheat, cheat with bread sauce. Buy a fresh tub of it from a good shop, bang it in the microwave and serve. Half the table will pull their face at it anyway, whether you’ve spent an hour stirring a pan or 2 minutes waiting for the mircowave to ping.
I think Christmas Dinner is all about picking your battles. For me, freshly made stuffing is really worth it, but I don’t need to stress of flat as a pancake Yorkshire puddings on Christmas Day. My stress-free Christmas dinner planning was noticed, gone were fraught scenes in the kitchen with me looking hot and bothered, instead I served a very good dinner with all the cool control of a northern Nigella.
Next year it’s my turn to cook Christmas Dinner and I know that I’ll do exactly the same again. Maybe I’ll cook my gravies from scratch and freeze them, but spending Christmas Eve morning doing all the prep and most of the cooking is time very well spent.
Do you have any top tops for an effortless Christmas dinner?
If there’s one time of the year we all enjoy drinking something a little special, it’s Christmas. Whether you like a boozy tipple, or you’re after something non-alcoholic but still festive; I’ve pulled together a list of seasonal suggestions for Christmas drinks and there really is something for all the family to enjoy.
Alcoholic Christmas Drinks
From Snowballs with Grandma, fizz with friends and mulled wine round the fire; bring some Christmas cheer with this selection of boozy favourites.
Mix things up with some deliciously warming Mulled Apple Cider from Daisies and Pie. Mulled cider makes a real change from mulled wine; lighter, sweeter and you can swap the cider for apple juice if you’re mulling for the whole family.
This Christmas Hot Punch from Susan Earlam is full of festive flavours, including cranberry, amaretto and spices. It’s a delicious sounding drink, perfect to drink in front of the fire.
Devotees of G&T might like to customise their gins by steeping their own, I’ve got recipes for Quince Gin and Parma Violet Gin on my blog, and very nice they are too.
If you want to jazz up a simple glass of festive fizz, we’ve been trying Pop A Ball which are little tubs of bursting bubbles and drink shimmers which you spoon into your fizz. Pop A Ball products are suitable for vegans, vegetarians and coeliacs. They are also are also free from dairy, nuts, eggs and soya.
Non-Alcoholic Christmas Drinks
I’ve got lots of friends who don’t drink alcohol, but why should they miss out on Christmas drinks? I always think it’s nice to make something the whole family can enjoy too. Here are some suggestions for non-alcoholic Christmas drinks for all the family.
After a chilly day riding a sledge, or taking the dog on a winter walk, nothing warms you up like a nice steaming mug of hot chocolate, Daisies and Pie has created this delicious sounding recipe for Peanut butter hot chocolate, just the thing for peanut butter nuts like me!
For mulled wine fans who are cutting down on their intake, this Vimto Mulled Wine recipe is a great way to still enjoy all the seasonal spices of mulled wine, but swerving the alcohol content. It’s also delicious because it’s based on Vimto.
Claire over at She-Eats is entirely alcohol-free these days and she’s got some great suggestions for booze free Christmas drinks over on her blog, as well as this delicious sounding Cranberry and Pomegranate Christmas Cocktail.
Fruity drinks, juices and cocktails are a great way to grab a winter vitamin boost, Jenny from The Brick Castle has got a selection of healthy juice recipes on her blog which would be a delicious and healthy way to start off your Christmas morning
Whatever you and your family like to drink over Christmas, there are lots of new and interesting ideas to try.
December is upon us, but regardless of whether you’re a put a tree up at the start of the month, or a leave it until the last minute tree putter-upper; if you’re going for a real Christmas tree, then at some point you’ll have to find one and buy one.
For us, December is always incredibly busy. It’s harder than you’d think for us to find a couple of hours where we are all free to be able to go and buy a tree together. Don’t get me wrong, it’s lovely to go and choose a tree; but the real magic is always in decorating the tree and seeing it all lit up.
This year we’ve dispensed with the stress and had our tree delivered instead. Our Scottish grown tree has come from The Christmas Forest which has 10 pop-up Christmas stores in London where families can go and pick their own treein London, or they can deliver it nationwide.
Our tree is a 6ft Nordmann Fir, which is non-drop and exactly the kind of tree we normally go for. They have trees in all sizes up to 8ft (12ft on request) with a range of different pine trees to choose from. I was a little worried that we might get a tree which wasn’t the perfect Christmas Tree shape we all dream of, but I had no need to worry. The trees are trimmed into shape as they grow and ours was just perfect.
You can choose optional extras, like a Christmas Tree stand, lights and wreaths too. We went for a new Christmas Tree stand, this holds water and helps keep your tree fresh.
Our tree arrived bright and early on the day we’d chosen for delivery. It was well wrapped in netting and plastic with a stick attached to the top to stop the top part from getting damaged in transit. All we had to do was cut a bit off the bottom, pop it in the stand and decorate it.
They also offer a tree collection service at the end of the season, with recycling option in London area.The Christmas Forest support the charity Tree Aid, who plant one tree in Africa for every one they sell. Through Tree Aid they have planted over 230,000 trees in the drylands of Africa.
Our Christmas Tree decorations are mostly a selection of things we’ve bought and made over the years; babies first Christmas; things I’ve made with Ben; precious baubles from my own childhood Christmas Tree and things we’ve been given by special people. It’s never a stylish tree, but it’s always one full of happy memories and love, which to us is just right.
If you want to take some of the stress out of Christmas, getting a real Christmas Tree delivered is a real godsend. It’s been such a help to have it delivered and it’s one very big thing off my festive to do list.
For more information about The Christmas Forest, or to order your Christmas Tree from them, visit their website.
Disclaimer: We were sent our Christmas Tree for review purposes. All images and opinions are our own.
Christmas is made for books. Is there anything nicer than snuggling up with your children at bedtime and reading a Christmas story with them? If you’ve every toys with doing the Book Advent thing, or if you just want some inspiration for some new festive reading, then you’re in luck; I’ve gathered together a list of 25 great children’s books about Christmas.
They’re are books for tiny ones and not so tiny ones, but absolutely something for everyone. There are modern classic and classic Christmas books we remember from our own childhood. There’s a book for every day leading up to Christmas, what are you waiting for?
25 Children’s Books about Christmas
The Snowman by Raymond Briggs
Father Christmas by Raymond Briggs
Stick Man by Julia Donaldson
Letters from Father Christmas by J.R.R Tolkien
The Night Before Christmas by Clement Clarke Moore
The Jolly Christmas Postman by Allan and Janet Ahlberg
The Best Christmas Present in the World by Michael Morpurgo
With the nights drawing in and Christmas just around the corner, we’ve been filling our diary with lots of festive fun. Top of the list was The Lanterns at Chester Zoo; an evening of magic and sparkle, full of lights and with something special around every corner. I’m not even exaggerating.
Regular readers will know that we are massive fans of the Just So Festival which is organised by Wild Rumpus. Wild Rumpus have sprinkled their magic all over Chester Zoo and The Lanterns and it’s a real multi-sensory experience.
Tickets are timed entry, so there’s an even flow of people throughout; it’s busy but not uncomfortably so. As you make your way to the entrance there are people flying huge neon butterflies and giant snails scooting about the place to entertain the kids and give you a little hint of what is to come.
Once through the gate you step into the Garden of Delight and you’re immediately transported into an illuminated magical world full of giant flowers and colourful lights. Make sure you make your way to the people who are giving out lanterns; the children get a little bucket lantern with an LED tealight and each family gets a larger lantern to carry too. It’s a lovely sight, looking ahead to see the makings of a lantern parade ahead of you.
Marvel at the giant giraffes, lions, elephants and tigers of the Moonlit Meadow. Meet the friendly ostrich and emu in Cloud Cuckoo Land, there’s so much to wonder at. I loved watching my son’s face as we walked around, he was in awe. Go through the Northern Lights where you can say hi to Father Christmas and meet some illuminated reindeer, you’ll soon find the food market where you can have something to eat and drink to set you on your way.
It was at the market we bumped into some friends and we carried on our journey together. The Enchanted Woodland was just that; with people operating flying barn owls, squirrels and deer, the trees were all lit up and it took my breath away. Around the corner you’ll find a snowy wonderland; with snow machines pumping out snow-showers, much to the absolute delight of everyone there. I confess we hung around that area for quite a while because it was just so lovely.
The Wonderland area was a space dedicated to Alice in Wonderland, complete with a giant rabbit and the Cheshire Cat. One of my favourite areas was Rainforest Glow, which just took my breath away. There were giant rainforest flowers hanging from the ceiling, glowing in the lights, plus illuminated rainforest sloths and grubs.
The Ice Kingdom was a great way to finish off the journey. The kids were queuing up to feed the lantern penguins fish and each were given special glasses to look at the lights through which turned all the lights into twinkling rainbows. We were sad to leave. I want to live in The Lanterns.
I really don’t want give too much away about the whole experience, but around each corner you’ll find something really special. It’s festive without being too overtly Christmassy. You will see Father Christmas and some of his elves in passing, but it’s really more about the lights, lanterns and illuminated sights. It’s a real sensory treat from start to finish. We were in awe from start to finish and I’m really ready to fill my own home with sparkle.
In terms of accessibility, the whole trail is on footpaths. There are no steps or stairs and if you’re pushing a wheelchair or a buggy, you should be fine. There aren’t a great many places to sit down, apart from near the food market, so you might want to consider that. It took us around 2 hours to walk around.
There are timed admissions between 4pm-7.45pm and it closes at 9pm. Children’s tickets are from £10-£15 and adult tickets from £12-£17.50.